Game 2 Preview: Thunder seeks to even series with Clippers

Game 2 calls for some special magic. Unicorn magic. - WBB

After Monday night's blowout and Tuesday afternoon's MVP celebration for Kevin Durant, it's back to basketball for the Oklahoma City Thunder who need a win to even up the series with the Los Angeles Clippers.

2013-2014 NBA Pre-Season
Clippers_medium
Los Angeles Clippers (57-25)
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Thunder_medium_medium
Oklahoma City Thunder (59-23)
Wednesday, May 7, 2014
Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
8:30 PM CST
TNT
WWLS 98.1 FM OKC
Enemy Blogs: Clips Nation
Previous Meetings: Game 1 (L, 122-105)
Injury Report: Hedo Turkoglu, DTD
Probable Starters
Chris Paul P Russell Westbrook
J.J. Redick SG Thabo Sefolosha
Matt Barnes SF '13-'14 NBA MVP Kevin Durant
Blake Griffin PF Serge Ibaka
DeAndre Jordan C Kendrick Perkins

It's been a pretty surreal 48-hour stretch for the entire Oklahoma City Thunder organization.

Monday night, the team suffered its worst loss inside the Chesapeake Energy Arena for any playoff game since the team moved to OKC. It was an embarrassing game, no doubt, but in a way, it was almost so lopsided that you could laugh it off as simply not being the Thunder's night. Close losses sting and teams tend to dwell on the little things that may have slipped away. In contrast, when good teams have bad nights, it's much easier to forget all about the game as a whole and just look forward. New game, new attitude.

Of course, it certainly helps to have an uplifting ceremony the next day, as well.

That's what Tuesday afternoon's moving, franchise-defining MVP ceremony for Kevin Durant was for the Thunder. Any residual frustration from the loss was wiped away as Durant stood at the podium, accepted the award, and then proceeded to go teammate by teammate, coach by coach, trainer by trainer, explaining why each and every one has been, and will continue to be important to the team's overall success.

It wasn't just an MVP speech; it was a celebration of years of hard-work, patient decision-making, and trusting in a process that one day, all of it would pay off.

Now, obviously, those goals aren't actually realized until it is the Larry O'Brien trophy being held by each and every member of the Thunder. Still, KD's MVP felt like its own sort of championship. That's almost entirely because of KD's incredibly emotional, selfless speech that made it such a team occasion.

You could make the case that the ceremony gave the Thunder a clean slate. No talk about the blowout, no talk about how the team - as a perennial championship contender - may not even reach the conference finals. Here was the entire Thunder team, sitting on stage behind their leader, and while that leader was being awarded for unmatched personal success, the entire team, as a result of his speech, was able to share in that accomplishment.

Now, with a pretty-dang-important Game 2 looming, the team can take the court with a slightly lighter weight on its shoulder. Durant said in his speech this was the first year he didn't put basketball first, that he had a new sort of peace on the court all throughout. Maybe the ceremony will help the team realize the same thing: it's just basketball, and they're all really good at playing it.

For the sake of providing some actual basketball insight, though, here are a few things to keep in mind as the Thunder looks to even the series.

Why the Thunder can win:

JA made a great point in the Game 1 recap about keeping perspective, pointing to Miami's blowout loss to San Antonio in last year's Finals. It's something to keep in mind because, as he wrote, good teams have bad nights. At the end of the day, Chris Paul got historically hot, the defense never really came together, and the Clippers just turned the game into shooting practice.

That's not to say OKC can't adjust. They got run pretty badly in a February contest against this same Clippers team inside this same arena. A little over a month later, they went into the Clippers house and did a pretty good job shutting down their offense and came away with a win themselves.

The point is, these teams are both capable of beating each other on any given night. OKC can lose by 15 one night and win by 15 the next. It's going to come down to focusing on defense, though.

Russell Westbrook was torched in the pick-and-roll, never really committing over or under screens, and allowing Chris Paul to just take over as floor general. He also got caught doing his patented "let the point guard by and try and poke it away from behind" move a few too many times. It's such an unnecessary gamble, particularly against Chris Paul, who is way too crafty for it to work consistently at all.

More than that, Westbrook simply got lost on defense way too often. Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman had a great breakdown of the defensive lapses as a whole, and it's certainly worth a read to see just how frequently guys were caught out of position. Heck, just watch all of Chris Paul's makes, and you can find a Thunder defender out of position on pretty much every one.

I don't mean to pile it all of Westbrook, either, because the defense as a whole was a bust outside. But there are two examples that jump out as to just how out of position Westbrook was at times.

Here you see how Westbrook's tendency to gamble backfires. After his man gets through and Butler switches, Westbrook gambles and tries to surprise Paul, hoping he can disrupt a pass. When he doesn't, it's up to the rest of the defenders to rotate while he stands and ball-watches.

This one was even more blatant. After OKC had switched Westbrook off Paul to try and shake up his rhythm in any way, Westbrook was left to defend Crawford. Only, as you see here, he's entirely unsure of whether or not to help on Paul or stay on his man. So, rather than do either, he kind of just stands there, makes a half-hearted attempt at Paul, and watches as Crawford drains another three for the Clips.

Again, Westbrook was far from the only culprit. Durant didn't make any noticeable impact on defense, failing to close out on multiple shot attempts. Sefolosha was brought back into the starting lineup to disrupt Redick, and Redick hit a three on the opening possession. Derek Fisher looked like a JV freshman chasing around a McDonald's All American as he tried to keep up with Jamal Crawford.

Even the interior D had breakdowns, particularly Steve Adams, who has struggled with the Clippers pick-and-roll in the past. Here's his most egregious mishap:

You see how Adams gets tricked on a basic pick-and-roll, and with the rest of the defense more focused on the perimeter, Glen Davis, usually a non-threat on offense, is able to roll to the basket without any defender in arms' reach.

Those are just a few examples, too, with plenty of other plays you could point to as other guys being guilty of the same mistakes.

So much of the Thunder's success on D comes down to effort. When the team needs stops, guys clamp down, make the necessary rotations, and rebound the ball. The Thunder, to their credit, controlled the rebounds, outboarding the Clippers 47-31. But it was the failure to defend with any sense of urgency that never allowed them to get the necessary stops to climb back into the game.

The Clippers only turned it over 8 times, and without any chance at run-outs, the Thunder was forced to operate largely in the half-court. They still put up a respectable 105 points, but they were never able to put together any runs to really threaten the lead once the Clippers pulled away.

All of this is more than correctable, as the Thunder have shown in the past the ability to defend the Clippers fast-paced offense. Here's an example from their April 9 win in Los Angeles, when they forced 16 Clippers turnovers (and only turned it over 8 times, themselves):

You see it begins with Westbrook fighting through the initial screen by Griffin with way more energy and decisiveness than we saw on Monday. Nick Collison, whose quickness and smarts is valuable in this series, rotates up to help, taking away any drive. Griffin gets the ball a bit too high up top the key for it to be a comfortable jump shot for him, so he makes the pass to the corner/wing. Jackson is there to close out strong - something else that was severely lacking in Game 1 - and Darren Collison is forced to put the ball on the ground. Only Nick Collison rotates down, forcing the ball back out to Griffin who is once again hesitant to take the shot.

The ball swings back to an open Paul for 3, who obviously was knocking down that shot in Game 1, but it's still the shot you live with if you're OKC because the ball has moved so much at this point and landed in Paul's hands, who on any other night isn't taking that shot confidently.

A hard closeout forces the drive, and the interior D is there to match, and with enough bodies down low to fight for the loose ball, Glen Davis is forced to foul Butler. Turnover.

Obviously, it's one possession in a long game. On top of that, Chris Paul still had an open look at three, something he was taking advantage of in Game 1. But the point remains that even for that look, the Clippers had to work for it. Game 1, the Clippers were getting by on basic pick-and-rolls and not even having to make that many extra passes (according to SportVU, the Clippers made 312 passes to OKC's 277).

Playing defense like this forced the Clippers to be on point and confident in their shots, and over time that's a far less sustainable model than the one that saw them getting any shot they wanted in to Game 1.

OKC has shown the effort in the past, and so much of what made that possession successful was guys simply staying true to their assignments and not taking shortcuts. It's the playoffs, there's no more excuses for shortcuts, and if the Thunder ups the defensive intensity, they've proven more than capable of putting up points of their own on the other end.

Why the Clippers can win:

The two biggest things the Clippers have in their favor: Chris Paul and Doc Rivers.

Chris Paul is in his ninth NBA season, and he has never once reached the conference finals. Superstars reach a point in their careers where it simply becomes time for them to have their signature moment. Game 1 seemed an awful lot like Chris Paul's big-time playoff moment, where he made it clear that he was moving on no matter what.

Dirk did it to OKC in 2011, when he scored 48 in Game 1 and basically became unstoppable for the entire series. That was another superstar simply dead-set on advancing at all costs, and Chris Paul certainly had a similar look to him Monday night.

Doc Rivers is also a worrisome matchup for the Thunder. To start, he just pulled his team through one of the most insane, scrutinized stretches any team in NBA history has ever had to go through. No one would have blamed him if they simply folded up against the Warriors. But now that they've moved on, Doc seems to have reached another level, connecting with his team in new ways and pulling even more from them as an entire unit. Two moments from Game 1 stick out in regards to how advanced he is as a coach.

1.) The Clippers went up 54-35 about midway through the second quarter and threatened to pull away early. Scott Brooks took a timeout and gathered his guys. Next, a Durant jumper, Griffin miss, and Westbrook layup gave the Thunder a quick 4-0 run and cut the lead to 15 with a small chance to salvage the beating just a little bit before the half. Rivers, though, put a stop it right there, calling a quick timeout, to which the Clippers responded with a 6-0 run of their own.

That's a terrific coaching move, where Rivers simply sensed the tides changing just the littlest bit and refused to let OKC even think they had a chance at making a game of it. I've gotten on Brooks before for failing to coach the same way, because too often coaches get lax and don't take the timeout until a team gets within 10. Not Rivers. He sensed it, and refused to take his foot off the gas.

2.) That leads to the moment that came late in the game, after it was pretty much decided when the TNT cameras showed Rivers in the huddle telling his guys something along the lines of: "Don't let them get easy shots. We don't want them hitting shots this game and having confidence heading into the next game."

That's yet another example of Rivers' grasp of the bigger picture stuff. He knows all that goes into a playoff series, and he knows how important it is to stay on his guys and remind them that, even though they are dominating one game, it can change in a second.

You take Rivers' leadership and Chris Paul's infectious determination (along with his own leadership qualities) and you have a team that has the experience up top to get to the next level.

Who will win?

All of that said, the Thunder has been too good all season, they had too meaningful of a Tuesday afternoon, for anyone to think they're going to come out as lackadaisical as they did in Game 1. The Thunder showed throughout the Memphis series how good they are when they are desperate.

This game may not be "must-win," because if there is any arena that you can go into and win two in a row, it's Staples Center. Then again, with how much that fanbase has been through over the past few weeks, they may be fired up as ever.

You don't want to fall down 2-0, and I think the Thunder will come out more focused. They had the MVP ceremony to clear their heads and remind them what they can achieve when they put in the work.

A lot of critics predicted OKC in six before the series started, and they now have six games to win four. They can do it, but it will start by taking care of their home court tonight.

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 113, Los Angeles Clippers, 106

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